To Unite or Divide? | Darra Goldstein

from Gastronomica 8:4

Back in 2002 I began working on a project with the Council of Europe to explore whether food can be used as a tool to promote tolerance. The volume on Culinary Cultures of Europe: Identity, Diversity and Dialogue grew out of this project, but I was eager to move beyond the printed page, to see if some of our ideas about shared culinary identities could be put into practice. So last summer I traveled to a site of fierce, continuing conflict to discover whether food could possibly help to instill trust in an atmosphere of increasing hatred. What I found in Israel and Palestine left me feeling both optimistic and full of despair.

The sources for my despair are both obvious and subtle. After a visit to the occupied territories I felt devastated. Current governmental policies attempt to erase Palestinians from the historical narrative. I saw ancient olive trees being bulldozed to make room for illegal Jewish settlements. Their loss threatens not only the Palestinians’ livelihood but also their core identity. The fact is, the less Palestinians have to be proud of, the less investment they will have in anything good, and the more likely they will be to act in anger and desperation (their horrific use of bulldozers as a weapon in Jerusalem is an irony that generally escapes American commentators). The Palestinians need to be bolstered in order to become equal partners in peace. Their sense of cultural erasure could be mitigated by recognizing their food and their deep connection to the soil. Palestinian food represents a cuisine of poverty, but it is rich in its use of such simple products as tehina, olive oil, and labane, a kind of yogurt cheese—not to mention the nutritious and aromatic wild greens that are gathered throughout the winter. Israelis enjoy these foods, too, and those in the know seek out artisanal products of Palestinian origin. Food can thereby open dialogue by helping to build a common cultural identity between Israelis and Palestinians.

The situation does offer some room for optimism, largely because numerous individuals are working against the societal pressures on both sides that keep Arabs and Jews apart. For instance, the Jerusalem group Artists Without Walls acts to make the separation barrier transparent. For one of their projects, an Israeli family sat down to breakfast on one side of the wall, a Palestinian on the other. As they ate, both families were videotaped. Then the two films were simultaneously projected on a wall in Abu Dis, an Arab village on Jerusalem’s outskirts, in effect making the wall disappear and enabling Israelis and Palestinians to share a communal meal, if only virtually. Tel Aviv artist Nurit Sharett also uses food to examine the conflict in her short video Haifa, Hummus & Aunt Hava, while the brand-new television series A Taste of Conflict explores cultural and political issues through the lens of a fictitious cooking show.

A new generation of talented Israeli chefs is also playing an increasingly important role in spreading awareness. By publicly acknowledging the origins of their food, and by incorporating time-honored Arab culinary practices into their own, modern cooking, they are fusing tradition and innovation into an exciting new cuisine that respects its origins but also signals something new. Among the most interesting of these chefs is Erez Komarovsky, whom you’ll read about in this issue. In the midst of the Second Intifada, Komarovsky traveled to the Israeli Arab town of Nazareth to cook with chef Duhoul Sfadi at his restaurant, Diana, in an act of support and defiance. Now he has opened a cooking school in the northern Galilee, near the Lebanese border, to teach Israeli Jews what the Arab population still knows—how to live off the land. Komarovsky likes to boast that his butcher is Christian, his fishmonger Muslim, and his fruiterer Druze, and he works all of their produce through his Jewish hands. His is a picture of an all-inclusive Middle East, one that admits, even celebrates, differences but ultimately recognizes a common bond.

Because food is so elemental, we should be able to channel the powerful emotions that attach to it into something affirming. Food can be an agent of positive social change. Certainly the majority of people on both sides wish to live in harmony. Yet considerable resistance remains. For one thing, governments slide too easily toward acts of war; they must be pushed toward peace. Another problem is the pull of tradition. Keeping traditions alive is an intrinsically conservative act. When people feel threatened, it becomes even more important to hold on to and reaffirm one’s own practices, which doesn’t encourage open-mindedness or receptiveness to the practices of others. Until the governments of both sides agree to lend support for grassroots initiatives between Arabs and Jews, any profound societal changes are unlikely to occur. Yet I can’t entirely relinquish a sense of hope as I watch people—mostly Israelis but also some Arabs—working to counteract destructive governmental policies. One small but potentially significant step is to celebrate the Arab foodways that have given so much to Israeli cuisine. Food can unite us as easily as it can divide.